Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/07/2013

“Now we must dismantle the tree”

Happy 68th

Happy 68th

Since before Thanksgiving I’ve had a bird’s eye view (five stories up, directly across the street) of the Dallas Christmas tree in the Main Street Garden. I tried for six weeks to get a picture that did it justice (iPhones don’t photograph lights well). I’ve had this bird’s eye view the three nights a week I am at my inamorato’s apartment. We watched for two days as city workmen put the steel structure up. This past Thursday when we went to bed, the tree was there. Friday morning when I left it was still there. Saturday morning when I came back, it was gone.

Apparently it takes longer to construct something (even a cone-shaped steel structure three or four stories tall, built to be put up and taken down) than to tear it down. It went up weeks before Christmas, but it came down promptly and correctly on the Twelfth Day of Christmas (who at City Hall keeps track of the Episcopal/ Catholic/ Lutheran church calendar?).

When I walked the three blocks down St. Paul Street from the light rail station yesterday and saw the absence (can one see an absence?) of the tree, my memory presented me with

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes

This was a perfectly obvious couplet to recall. However, I have no memory for such things. I might expect my memory to come up with “dismantle the tree,” but to find two entire lines of For the Time Being all at once is not far short of miraculous (1). I consort with (not “as with criminals”) a man who remembers lines from movies he saw twenty years ago and knows the words to every song he’s ever heard.

Often it’s not all that certain I will remember seeing the movie.

What’s the point? one might ask.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt
. . .  There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite . . . Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away. . .

In some ways my memory serves me quite well. I can remember slights, real or imagined, at the hand of friend, foe, and family alike. I remember useless snatches of periscopes for the church year that I no longer believe. I remember words and chord progressions for Gospel hymns I used to despise but now accept as part of the heritage of my formative years. Oh, yes, I have a great memory.

Dismantle the Tree

Dismantle the Tree

Memory for mostly useless—or even harmful—events, expressions, imaginings, and understandings. I know all of the jokes (and understand them) aging folks make about missing their (our) memory. What I don’t seem to remember very well is the stuff of my intellectual and emotional life that used to give me great comfort.

Today(now it’s yesterday) is the Feast of the Epiphany. Many Episcopal churches last night had 12th Night parties with the burning of the Christmas greens and other faux-symbolic activities, fun and harmless. I used to take enormous pleasure in and experience irreplaceable camaraderie from such events. However, since the church for which I was last organist closed, I have felt virtually no need to participate in those kinds of activities, and I have great difficulty remembering why they were so important—other than the fact that I loved the people with whom I shared them.

It is now tomorrow—I didn’t finish this writing yesterday, which is important because an example of my rhetorical dismantling of the tree happened yesterday afternoon. We (my inamorato and I) went to the Dallas Museum of Art to see the exhibition, “Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries.” I know about Toulouse-Lautrec. Everyone does. Well, every gay man does. Many years ago I owned and read a book on the Fin de siècle in Paris in which Toulouse-Lautrec figures largely. The book begins with an account of the mass outpouring of grief (and the enormous crowds) attendant upon the death of Sarah Bernhardt.

I thought the entire era and the public demonstration of loss were pretty silly when I read the book. Yesterday, I saw originals of posters by Toulouse-Lautrec and many of his contemporaries. What I did not expect was to be taken with—even moved by—the posters of Sarah Bernhardt by Alphonse Mucha. I had always assumed that kind of art to be frivolous and not worthy of notice. The “frivolity” epitomized by the Danse Sepentine by the American bombshell in Paris, Loie Fuller.

But three days after my 68th birthday, I discovered these marvelous works in a way I never could see them before. I’m not sure how to get from Auden to Mucha so anyone can follow my thinking. It’s pretty simple, really. I have dismantled most of the “trees” that have meant a great deal to me. That is to say, the great Feast of Epiphany means (oh, don’t be supercilious) almost nothing to me these days. But Mucha’s poster of Sarah Bernhardt as the Athenian queen Gismonda has taken on a significance (I don’t know what it is) I could not have predicted.sarah bernhardt-mucha2

Perhaps I “. . . have seen the actual Vision and failed To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility.” I don’t know now—why should this all be so confusing?—which is the agreeable possibility, the Feast of the Epiphany or Gismonda. But the question is even more confused. W.H. Auden was a friend of David Diamond. I’ve known Auden’s “For the Time Being” since I participated in a dramatic reading of it in 1969 or 70. I’ve known about the work of Toulouse-Lautrec since—I don’t know. Now I know Mucha and Diamond, and am obsessed with Diamond’s music and moved by Mucha’s paintings.

On one’s 68th birthday, one is supposed to have “it” figured out. One should not be dismantling the Christmas tree and finding other “agreeable possibilities.” Or perhaps one has finally reached the age where treasures of the past have faded in value to be replaced by new possibilities of meaning and value.

(1) Auden, W. H. “For the Time Being.” Collected Poems. New York: Vintage (Reprint), 1991.

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Responses

  1. Well said once again, sir. And I was taken by your reference to Loie Fuller. She (perhaps) was a paramour of Willis Powell, the man who founded in 1906 St. Petersburg’s afternoon newspaper, the Evening Independent. I had the joy of spending 15 years with that feisty little publication, which closed in 1986. At any rate . . . one does not see many mentions of Loie these days and yours made me smile.

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  2. Thank you for this personal connection. As you can tell, I loved learning about Loie Fuller and reconnecting with the poster makers!

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